For Randall King, finding safe and affordable housing has been a pursuit since childhood.
The 66-year-old arrived in New York with his family from Virginia in 1964 when he was just 9, and their apartment on Riverside Drive in Harlem bore the brunt of pollution from industrialization across the Hudson River. “I went to the emergency room 168 times in one year because of asthma attacks,” Mr. King said. His friends and neighbors suffered similarly. “There was a cluster of it where we lived.”
Over the course of his life, Mr. King has resided in several of the city’s neighborhoods. “Living in the five boroughs is like being an international citizen,” he said, “all the exposure to languages and cultures.”
Four years ago, however, he found himself living in a rooming house in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, trying to figure out how he would make ends meet as he approached retirement age.
Mr. King had worked as a security guard for 30 years, often earning at or near the minimum wage. In 1993, he took courses at John Jay College, a public college in New York City, to become a fire inspector and did that work for five years, but then his asthma returned — and he developed a heart condition. “My health gave out and I couldn’t work,” Mr. King said.
He applied for Medicaid and Social Security benefits, but while he waited on those resources, he couldn’t make rent. “The landlord,” Mr. King said, “he wasn’t willing to work with me.”
So Mr. King took the subway to Manhattan from Bushwick and walked across 30th Street, all the way to the city’s homeless intake center near the East River, where he applied for temporary housing for single adult males.
After a month of living at an evaluation center, he was placed in the Skyway Men’s Shelter in Jamaica, Queens. It was the most precarious moment yet for Mr. King in his long pursuit of quality housing — but it was also the moment it started to come within reach.
“There are other shelters where terrible things happen, but not at that shelter,” he said. “They were very attentive to us; matched us perfectly, two people to a room. If anyone was uncomfortable, they would find another room for them, and people weren’t allowed to go into each other’s rooms. There were a lot of rules, but all for a good reason.”
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He was assigned to a caseworker while living there, who, over the course of two years, helped him follow up on his Social Security and Medicaid applications, secure a Section-8 housing voucher and look for long-term housing.
Not only did Mr. King feel supported at Skyway, he was forever changed. “I struck up a conversation with a man named Raj,” he said, “and I was exposed to Buddhism. I converted from being a Baptist to being a Buddhist — and I’m going to be one forever,” he said.
He began visiting the Soka Gakkai International Buddhist Center on East 15th Street. “It was a place of enlightenment, where I felt like I could look back on my life and understand why I am the way I am, and understand what changes I want to make,” he said.
Most crucially, he underscored, he learned to chant at the center. “I was taught that you can chant for whatever you want,” he said. “If you were in a homeless shelter, what would you chant for? An apartment! It’s only natural. So, I chanted for an apartment and, boy, I got it.”
On June 3, 2021, Mr. King moved into Fountain Seaview in East New York, Brooklyn, an affordable-housing complex developed and managed by the Arker Companies. “I was the first person here,” he said. “I was here before the building was finished. There was still banging and sawing, that’s how hard they were working to get me in here.”
$1,909 | east New York, Brooklyn
Randall King, 66
Occupation: Retired security guard and fire inspector
On Buddhism: “I learned that we can look into our past and see all the vivid experiences that are controlling us. And when we do that — guess what?— they vanish. It’s like an ice cream cone in July. All these things that are driving us to do unwanted behavior melt. Once you see them for what they are, they dissolve.”
On background checks: Each resident in Mr. King’s building goes through an extensive four-month background check. “It’s intrusive and goes back so far into your past,” he said. In his case, this included seeking out high school disciplinary records. “The Board of Education said, ‘He’s 65 years old! We destroyed those records years ago.’” When the request was pushed further, it was discovered that some of the records had, in fact, been digitized. Mr. King is grateful for the extensive process: “Everyone is scrutinized, so we don’t have any issues here.”
Mr. King arrived at the building with only a duffel bag of belongings, but so many of the basic necessities — a bed, a table and chairs, a sofa, a dresser and a night stand — were already in place for him. “When I first moved in, I didn’t have to buy any of that stuff. They anticipated the needs.”
As he walked into his one-bedroom apartment for the first time, he noticed the 10-foot ceilings right away, and the heating and air-conditioning unit with a thermometer — he realized he’d be able to control the temperature. “And the kitchen — oh, the kitchen,” he said, shaking his head, still marveling at the fact that he has a stainless-steel refrigerator and a stove with four burners.
Just down the hall from his apartment, there’s an office for the Jewish Association Serving the Aging. “There are two social workers vying for my attention in that office,” he said with a smile. One of them helped arrange meal deliveries for Mr. King. “My refrigerator is chock-full of food all the time.”
He is able to make ends meet with his Social Security benefits and Section-8 voucher, which provides $1,667 toward his rent. “I have financial flexibility,” he said.
The floor he lives on, which is dedicated to seniors, took awhile to start filling up — as did the rest of the complex. “The first year I was here,” Mr. King said, “I felt like there was a nuclear war and no one told me.” Then he started seeing curtains in the windows of the apartments across the courtyard, and soon the complex started to feel full and alive.
Now the benches in the courtyard are often crowded before noon. “We all sit out there and some people feed the pigeons, and the old men talk about the 1970s,” he said, laughing. “It’s a wonderful form of community.”
There’s closed-circuit programming with exercise classes and cameras on each resident’s television so they can make video calls. “You can call other seniors in the building and connect,” Mr. King said. “So you won’t be lonely.”
In retirement, Mr. King had fallen into a routine of waking up late, but chanting and taking a new tai chi class in the building have him embracing early mornings again. “I have a reason to live,” he said, flashing a smile at the thought of his apartment. “I’m so happy.”
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